Andrea Grassi: don’t fear the eBook

Upon its debut, the eReader should have been marketed as a travel device. This introduction strategy would have given all those invested (readers, writers, publishers, etc.) a crystal conception of how exactly one could extend their love of reading beyond the printed page. In mobile times that require an efficiency and lightness never before experienced: The ON-THE-GO reader! Your entire library on vacation! Dickens and daiquiris! I’d already imagined Apple’s Get a Mac-style commercial: a fit, tanned Justin Long relaxing on a beach chair with his iPad, and an overweight, lobster-skinned John Hodgman lugging a beach bag full of hardcovers, sand inevitably pouring out of one tomb as he opens it. The year that print proverbially died, according to news media, was 2010. It was a #Bookpocalypse. The publishing world and its readership were struck by the way we were going to experience books via devices: journalists, academics, and writers shuddered; old generation librarians bit their nails; E-commerce executives manically rubbed their hands together. Justified? Professor of Information at University of California Berkeley Paul Duguid argues that, when it comes to matters of materiality, we could have easily panicked about the end of the pencil when the typewriter debuted. Indeed, the door hinge could have disappeared altogether for a more superior technology (perhaps in favour of the automatic door à la Star Trek).

Ironically, the source of our panic was also what has saved and will continue to save books: our deep cultural connections to them. (Today we see the sale of eBooks levelling.) Just like the pencil and the door hinge, the book, which was so ingrained into our existence, was inevitably met and honoured. Unlike the pencil and the door hinge, the foliated page carries with it more than mechanics: it carries conceptual thought. This is why the eReader is failing as a vessel, and will inevitably continue to fail. Since when does a hunk of plastic that does one thing speak to our lifestyle? We need it equipped with a handful of intelligences such as weather and navigation—if it doesn’t do GPS, forget it. This is why the Kindle is now practically nonexistent, and why I have never embraced it. (I have an iPad mini.)

An author can influence their readership’s interpretations of their work via social media, comments, and reviews, haunting their own work (or sales) in the malleable digital afterlife. (Really, they do.) In the now-infamous “What is an author?” critical theorist Michel Foucault calls the two relational pillars between reader and author “functions.” But what is the nature of the space between these functions, the space where meaning is made? Does it move? Is it static? Does it look like a maze?

Given the technologically transformative ecosystem of digital humanities and the proliferation of text-based language as a framework for Web 2.0, this meaning-making space between functions becomes even more abstract. The traditional perception of this space as it manifests in a published work is that it is linear—the author writes and then, in turn, the reader reads. In this view, the creator is betrayed by the linearity of a past, present, and future; according to Foucault, the author dies once the text is written. What happens when we factor technology into this relationship?

Perhaps this is an opportunity to reinvent the values and powers we attach to reading or writing a text. Says Duguid of the transformed space, “technology is thus called upon to do for information what theology sought to do for the soul.”

I imagine the space between author and reader as a wave—a network of an origin force and an infinitely transmitted feedback between the two pillar functions. It is within this imagined wave where meaning and authenticity live. There is no fixed point within the constantly transmitted wave of liminal space between functions—to take famed German philosopher and linguist Walter Benjamin’s idea of the authenticity of authorship as a sensed “aura,” I declare that Benjamin’s Aura 2.0 lies in the active space (the coefficient) where the author function becomes synonymous with the technology function, and the reader function becomes synonymous with the user function. In the re-examination of this linear relationship as a newly imagined spatial wave, it is important to illustrate how analogous the terms “author” and “technology,” and similarly “reader” and “user,” become. Foucault’s dead author equipped in the digital realm calls upon another birth—not of the reader, but that of the user. So, can technology (the eBook)—as it transmits meaning—be seen as a kind of new authorship? Could it be a new kind of power?


To read books or eBooks?

The argument for this comparison between functions (author/technology; reader/user) stems from the idea that the reader is the corollary of the concept of author. How? A reader cannot exist without the act of “reading” a text, and a text cannot exist first without being “written” (the use of reading and writing here is loose, as this definition should be applied outside the restraint of the novel, book, or any other artifact of language). Traditionally, we refer to the starting point where a text is formed as the author. However, this relationship is binary, as an author concept cannot exist without a reader concept. The same relationship can be seen between technology and the user. The concept of technology does not first exist without the work of the user, and the user does not exist without having to use the technology—and it is in this use, this unique activity, where the framework of the wave can happily address the death of the author and the idea of the traditional author-reader space.

The modern user is something apart, perhaps beyond, the reader. Given the user-generated, participatory nature of agency, by creating a feedback of work and creation, the Web 2.0 user-technology relationship demands a non-linear perspective. As the user becomes creator, the space between becomes active and this makes the initial beginning point (origin) unclear as the beginning is constantly regenerating. As the user transmits through the wave, the creator becomes the created and the origin becomes unfixed. As beginning regenerates, so too does a new aura (the idea borrowed from Benjamin) and a case for a displaced authenticity.

By coupling these functions, we abolish Foucault’s problem of the word as highly individualized and thus closed to meaning. Rather, technology maintains this individualization through the activation of the user, creating an open language that is unlike the problematically fixed field imagined by Barthes. Contrarily, the two functions (user-technology) are systems of the wave. It may seem problematic to give technology this much merit (being the initial creator), but it speaks to the necessary engagement and layered origin of today’s texts as they are transmitted digitally—ceasing to be Barthes’ “tissues of signs.” This active space is the variable of technology as authorial. The reader is the real work of the author, as the user is the real work of the technology. Meaning is found in the transmission, leading to a creation that does not end with the user.

Even classic authors knew their expressions were restrictive. To quote Hemingway:

I suppose there are symbols since critics keep finding them. If you do not mind I dislike talking about them and being questioned about them. It is hard enough to write books and stories without being asked to explain them as well. Also it deprives the explainers of work. If five or six or more good explainers can keep going why should I interfere with them? Read anything I write for the pleasure of reading it. Whatever else you find will be the measure of what you brought to the reading.

We often forget when reading an eBook that another person is standing in-between the author and reader: the encoder. To me, what writers and readers need to consider now is no longer the package, but rather the consequence of the digital translation—the process of encoding. The holistic, physical book as later filtered and encoded into an XML file is how it appears in a reader. This necessary translation makes the text plastic (i.e., it is customizable by font, so consider War and Peace in comic sans). The encoder is given the task of translating the sparks off of the page and then later embedding these sparks into another realm of immediacy in which the reader acts (the wave). Nuance is a hazard here, and can result in what can only be described as the interpretation of a text as a kind of 3D image viewed without the glasses, three colours in a slightly bleeding, off-the-mark image that is dangerously recognizable and enough understood to pass for the intended one.

Meaning gleaned from a text is never a negotiation. Readers have always had the power to project and cull an open work such as of poetry or fiction. (We once considered the critic a “special” reader in this regard). Today, writers, readers, and encoders alike can enjoy holding hands in the hybrid world of digital and physical text in order to let go of the idea of a fixed mode. We know the physical book has undergone change before (scrolls, stone tablets, etc.), and this will continue. Let us instead, as those invested, have faith in ourselves, to never fear the future of the book (whatever it might look like), and to trust that we will tend to honour the very things we hold dear to our experiences.  It will be a #Bookvolution (if we ever get rid of eBook predatory pricing). We will give over to the blurred relationship that is now the reader/user/creator most equipped with a new voice, mind, and heart technology (as boundless as the blank).

Andrea Grassi has explored information theory, as well as the philosophy of technology, in her graduate work. This may or may not be the reason she became a children’s librarian. She is also an editor at DONNA collective, a small poetry and art website based in Toronto and New York. Her creative writing usually settles around three interests: vibrations, corn, and pity. // agrassi.com, @andGrassi.

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